Princeton Peru Partnership’s split from PHS: Reasons cited include financial growth and transparency, fundraising methods

Princeton Peru Partnership, one of PHS’s most recognized clubs and community service groups, has raised $38,000 over the past three years and gained recognition from both the Peruvian ambassador Harold Forsyth and President Barack Obama for its service to people in Peru. However, the group is no longer affiliated with the school as of the 2013–2014 school year.

PPP was started as a club in the 2011–2012 school year by students who wanted to continue the service work they had done during their summer trip to Peru, during which they helped rebuild a school in Taray, Peru that had been damaged by a mudslide. It then became a community service group in the 2012–2013 school year, led by Menelaos Mazarakis ’14 and Liana Bloom ’14, who were members of the original PPP club.

But at the beginning of this school year, after negotiating with the school, the group was unable to continue being a community service group. PPP now operates independently from the school as a non-profit organization under the same name.

Monetary accountability

“Essentially, [the school’s] reason for taking Princeton Peru Partnership out was that there was a lack of transparency, and basically they didn’t believe that the money we raised was actually going to Peru,” Mazarakis said.

Mazarakis had opened a bank account for PPP outside of school instead of keeping the group’s funds in the school account designated for the deposits of each club and community service group.

Former Superintendent Judith A. Wilson said that, while PPP’s work was valuable, the school could not be accountable for money raised by a group that was spent on projects in Peru, which is thousands of miles away from Princeton. “The activities account [for] the high school couldn’t just be the flow-through for thousands and thousands of dollars that would end up in Peru, in a place that we didn’t monitor,” Wilson said. “We’re not monitoring that work in Peru. We didn’t have that direct communication.”

Principal Gary Snyder said, “There are many community service activities that are worthwhile, that are important, but might not meet the structure and the framework of what the school can manage … Sometimes a school only has so much capacity to monitor different things, in this case community service.”

The school’s concerns were addressed at various meetings with Wilson, Snyder, Dr. Andrea Dinan, who oversees the Leaders In the Community community service program, and others, during which there were discussions about how PPP was growing into something larger than what PHS could manage.

“There was no inkling of it not being appropriate; it just wasn’t appropriate for the high school [and the] rules  … we work under. And they’re not just rules that Mr. Snyder or Dr. Dinan make up. They’re rules for accounting, money, and what we’re legally responsible for or what we could possibly be held responsible for,” said Wilson. “I think [the group’s growth] was [the] evolution of really good work that got larger and larger and needed parameters, [and it] needed definition and had to follow some guidelines.”

A change in leadership

During the third marking period of the 2012–2013 school year, according to Mazarakis, he was asked to step down as the community service group’s leader, while Bloom continued to lead the group.

Mazarakis said he had been asked to leave by Dinan because he had not been present at a majority of LINC meetings and because of a conflict surrounding midterm exams.

On January 14, 2013, the leaders posted on the group’s mandatory community service blog: “To turn [your midterm] in, please place it in the Princeton Peru Partnership FOLDER on a table in the IDEAS Center [by Friday, January 19].”

“[Midterms should go] straight from the student to Dr. Dinan, so the leaders shouldn’t see the midterms at all,” said Richa Rai ’13, one of the 2012–2013 school year’s LINC leaders.

“Dr. Dinan [was absent] that day, and I didn’t know where to put all the midterms,” Mazarakis said. “I took home all the midterms, and over the weekend I read them, and … I highlighted everything that I had to improve on or I could improve on as a leader.”

Mazarakis said he continued to grant hours and remain an integral part of the group. “Truthfully, I never really left,” Mazarakis said. “In paper, I was out of the community service group, but I was still going to the meetings, still leading all the operations.”

Dinan declined to comment on the basis that she could not speak about specific students.

Fundraising as community service

Mazarakis said the group raised its $38,000 through four main activities: several fundraising dinners, two silent auctions, partnerships with community schools and non-profits, and competitions up to the international level.

Additionally, Mazarakis and Bloom enlisted the help of the sophomores in their community service group to fundraise. As a community service group, PPP gave hours to students to fulfill the career awareness and community service graduation requirement.

“We held lots of fundraising events; we had bake sales after school; we had a few car washes on the weekends. But we also did an individual [door-to-door] fundraising project. So we really emphasized getting recognition from different community service members and asking people to help out with our cause,” Bloom said.

The door-to-door fundraising was another point of contention between PPP and the school. Community service hours were awarded for the approximate amount of time it would take students to solicit donations. This fundraising system was not monitored, as the students were trusted to be accountable for their own hours.

“Basically, [the] process was if you raise $10 you get one hour [of community service]. But people began just giving their own money and not doing the work that actually goes into raising money,” said Talya Shatzky ’15, a former member of PPP.

“He basically offered hours to [group members who contributed money], and that’s pretty much how it worked,” said former member Sammy Prentice ’15.

Others said they did spend time fundraising by asking for donations. “I was deeply behind on my hours, and I ended up just sacrificing a weekend and going around and scrambling around and asking for donations … I ended up raising $220 for the cause,” said former member Barnabé Bouchenoir ’15.

“It was a well-intentioned fundraising activity, and it’s not my obligation … to babysit 20 kids going around to houses,” said Mazarakis.

Dinan said in the past there has been an approximate limit on direct fundraising for community service hours. “We have always said that you at most do … one-third fundraising, because just raising money isn’t really a service activity,” she said.

“From time to time, there are very good ideas, and they start small … Then sometimes problems are recognized later when they’ve gotten bigger [or] when they’re not fitting well within the structure,” Snyder said. “So one of the areas where that will start to gain attention will be around fundraising and money … If there was anything around fundraising in exchange for community service hours, that would be deemed not okay.”

Some group members did not feel that this system of fundraising was an appropriate way to gain community service hours.

“The role of the community service was to do work and be part of the community, as opposed to just paying your way to get out of it. So, in retrospect, I think it was an inappropriate system,” said Connor Protter ’15, a former PPP member.

“The means of getting those dollars and those hours just wasn’t worthy of community service in the terms that PHS defines it as, which is working hard and being selfless and improving a community … Honestly, taking a check from your parents isn’t improving your community or improving yourself in any way,” said Shatzky.

As such, some members believe that both students and leaders were responsible in this situation, as students should have been collecting their hours honestly, and leaders should have been holding their students accountable.

“I think it’s a very good thing that [we were] doing. The one problem I have is the way it was put as a community service project,” said former member Pragya Malik ’15.

Looking ahead

PPP’s work continues outside of the school as a non-profit organization led by Mazarakis. The organization is awaiting confirmation of 501(c)(3) non-profit status. Although Mazarakis will be graduating at the end of this school year, he plans to continue leading PPP outside of PHS and potentially expand it to the college level. The group hopes to once again become affiliated with the school and become a club next school year.

In an effort to encourage more collaborative leadership and establish new guidelines, PHS is implementing a stakeholders group for community service that will be similar in structure and purpose to other stakeholders groups, such as that of Teen PEP. The community service stakeholders group has been in the works for about a year and will be composed of several adults and students, who will meet regularly to evaluate any concerns that arise and to work with Snyder and others to create concrete definitions of and structures for community service groups.

“[The implementation of the stakeholders group] is an effort to have more voices around the table and … to review guidelines, … define them, clarify, change where needed to be changed or not changed, reconfirm what we do with them—in this case, community service,” Snyder said. “The purpose is to make sure we still agree on the mission, make sure we still agree on the purpose, make sure we still agree on how we go about doing it.”

additional reporting: Elena Wu-Yan